FAQs on Patent Information
- What is patent information?
- What is the volume of patent information?
- Why search patent information?
- What are the characteristics of patent documents?
- Who are the main user groups of patent information?
Various types of searches using patent documentation
The industrial property system has two main functions: the so-called "exclusivity function" and "the information function". The fact that a patent gives an inventor an exclusive right on a special knowledge and by doing so limits the possibilities of access to this special technology for other enterprises is compensated by the obligation for the inventor to disclose the information about the newly developed technology for public access. This second function of the IP system, referred to as the information function, is very important for the continuous development of the technology.
Each publication of a patent document could be the base for new technical developments by other inventors. Without publication there would be no chance for the public to get information about new technical developments. It is therefore not surprising that today providing information for the public is part of the tasks of an industrial property office. In the last 30 years a change took place: with the growing use of information many industrial property offices realised that providing information to the public might in future be of equal importance to the granting of patents itself. Thus most industrial property offices decided to build up greater information capacities for the public.
Patent documents contain descriptions of scientific and technical concepts as well as practical details of processes and apparatus. Patents generally disclose technological information by describing the inventions in accordance with the requirements of the applicable patent law and by indicating the claimed novelty and inventiveness by reference to the existing state-of-the-art. They are thus sources of information, and in many cases furnish a history, in summary form, of the technological progress in the field of technology to which they relate.
According to recent WIPO statistics, the number of patent applications filed each year in the world is nearly one and a half million. Those applications result in the grant of more than half a million patents. The number of inventions which are covered by those patent applications and grants is much smaller since each invention gives rise to an average of two or three patent applications in different countries. The number of patent documents published each year, both applications and granted patents, is approximately two million, in many different languages.
There are no exact statistics on the number of patent documents published so far from the beginning of the times when patents were first published. They can, however, be estimated at over 50 million. Normally, only the recent ones are of practical importance for those searching technological information; the older ones are frequently only of historical interest. Nevertheless, access to the older documents is an absolute necessity for any industrial property offices whose law requires it to pass a judgement on the question of whether a given patent application related to an invention is, objectively, new, since such a judgement requires looking at all the existing patent documents likely to disclose a similar invention.
The practice has shown that information contained in patent documents can be very useful to:
- avoid duplication of R&D work;
- identify specific new ideas and technical solutions, products or processes;
- identify the state-of-the-art in a specific technological field in order to be aware of the latest development;
- assess and evaluate specific technology and to identify possible licensors;
- identify alternative technology and its sources;
- locate of sources of know-how in a specific field of technology or in a given country;
- improvement of an existing product or process;
- development of new technical solutions, products or processes,
- identify existing or prospective industrial property rights (validity, ownership, ...), particularly to avoid infringement actions;
- assess novelty and patentability of own developments with a view of applying for a domestic or foreign industrial property right;
- monitor activities of competitors both within the country and abroad; and
- identify a market niche or to discover new trends in technology or product development at an early stage.
Hereafter are given brief descriptions of specific characteristics of patent documents, which make them extremely useful sources of technological information, with some clear advantages over other sources of information.
Description, Claims, Drawings
Patent documents generally have a fairly uniform structure that facilitates the extracting of information: the claims give the essence of what is new; the description gives the background to the invention (what was known before the invention, i.e., the "prior art"), and defines the difference between the pre-existent technology and what the invention contributes, as a new matter, as a step forward, to technology development; often patent documents contain also drawings, that illustrate the invention that is claimed.
Technological information is disclosed by describing the inventions in accordance with the requirements of the applicable patent law and by indicating the claimed novelty and inventiveness by reference to the existing state of the art. Certain patent documents are published together with a search report showing a series of references found at the occasion of a documentary search made to establish in a first instance the level of novelty of the claimed invention.
Many patent documents contain an abstract. Abstracts allow a general idea to be formed of the contents of the document within a few minutes, and in any case a much shorter time than would be required to read the full text of the patent document.
Patent documents bear "classification symbols" which facilitate very much finding and extracting relevant information from them. For the purposes of maintaining search files and performing searches for the state of the art, patent offices classify patent documents according to the field or fields of technology to which their contents relate. Although several classification systems exist, today the International Patent Classification (IPC), which was established by an intergovernmental agreement concluded more than 30 years ago and administered by WIPO, is the most widely applied by all the major industrial property offices. The main part of the high cost of processing and classifying patent documents for building up search files, and of keeping the classification system up to date, is borne directly by the patent offices which publish large numbers of patent documents; users other than the Patent Office itself thus have access to patent documentation without incurring, in addition to their costs as users, the cost of maintaining, developing and classifying their own patent documentation collections. Patent documents belonging to a given classification subdivision contain a highly concentrated supply of usually technically advanced information on a given technological field.
Patent documents bear several dates (date of application, priority date, date of grant) from which conclusions can be drawn as to the age of an invention and to the question of whether the inventions they describe are still under legal protection. If they are no longer legally protected, they can be used without the consent of the patentee.
Inventor, Applicant, Owner
Most patent documents indicate the name and address of the inventor, applicant, the patentee (the owner), and the inventor, or at least one or two of those persons. The information contains also the legal address of at least the owner and/or the applicant. These indications allow any potential licensee to contact the persons concerned in order to find out under what conditions the technology may be transferred.
The main user groups of patent information are:
- industry, and in particular R&D intensive industry;
- research and development institutions;
- governmental authorities;
- small and medium-size enterprises;
- individual inventors;
- professionals in the field of industrial property, e.g. administrators of technical libraries, patent agents, researchers, producers of data banks;
- educational institutions and university students.
In practice, there are various more or less typical reasons for performing searches in collections of patent documents, each of them requiring a slightly different approach in the search method used. Some of the search types are basically concerned with technological information as such, while others are directed towards the processing of patent applications, or relevant to the legal state of a new technology. In the following subparagraphs the individual types of searches are listed separately, whereas it is a well-known fact that many items of bibliographic information may be combined in searching. In general, searches performed by inventors are usually not as exhaustive as the searches done by professionals at patent offices. However, such insights into patent documents are often very useful for the inventor to determine whether someone has already patented a similar invention, or to obtain relevant information about other patents in the same category as his invention.
At first, an invention is just an idea. Many details are not even known or recognized as relevant parts. A novelty search based on a vague idea can only result in a vague picture of the prior art. The patent application process is difficult, time consuming and expensive; therefore, the inventor should conduct a "Pre-Application Search" (PAS) before filling a patent application. In this search, the inventor should look for any printed publications, public knowledge, or patents already issued in his country or a foreign country that may relate to the particular invention.
This kind of search, also referred to as "Informative Search," is made to determine the general state-of-the-art for the solution of a given technical problem as background information for R&D activities and in order to know what patent publications already exist in the field of the technology or research. Further reasons for undertaking this kind of search could be the wish to identify alternative technologies which may replace known technology or to evaluate a specific technology which is being offered for licensing or which is being considered for acquisition. State-of-the-art searches are especially useful for technology development or technology transfer purposes.
The objective of a "Novelty Search" is to determine the novelty or lack of novelty of the invention claimed in a patent application or a patent already granted, or of an invention for which no application has yet been filed. The aim of the search is to discover relevant prior art. An early novelty patent search is usually discouraging. Normally, the basic inventive ideas are formulated in such an unspecified way that many publications will apply to this broad description. Dependent on the outcome of the novelty search, the next decision will be whether to stop or to go ahead in developing the invention. If nothing of relevance was found, it is easy and you should go ahead. The decision becomes more difficult if one or several pertinent documents have been found. Most important is to restrict the search to the appropriate area. This may be done by identifying a proper place or places for the subject of the search in the IPC. .
A "Patentability or Validity Search" is made to locate documents relevant to the determination not only of novelty but also of other criteria of patentability, for example, the presence or absence of an inventive step (i.e., the alleged invention is or is not obvious) or the achievement of useful results or technical progress. This type of search should cover all the technical fields, which may contain material pertinent to the invention. Novelty and patentability searches are mainly being carried out by industrial property offices in the course of the examination of patent applications.
These are searches for locating information about published patent documents involving specific companies or individuals, as applicants, assignees, patentees or inventors.
They are to be understood as searches for identifying companies and/or inventors who are active in a specific field of technology. These searches are also suitable for identifying countries in which a certain technology is being patented, so as to know where to turn to for obtaining particular information in a given field of technology.
The objective of an "Infringement Search" is to locate patents and published patent applications, which might be infringed on by a given industrial activity. In this type of search the aim is to determine whether an existing patent gives exclusive rights covering that industrial activity or any part of it.
This kind of search is carried out to identify a member of a "patent family." Patent family searches are used in order to:
- find the countries in which a given patent application has been filed (if published);
- find a "patent family member" that is written in a desired language;
- obtain a list of prior art documents or "References Cited"; and
- estimate the importance of the invention (by number of patent documents relating to the same invention and being published in different countries or by industrial property organisations).
A search for this type of investigation is made to obtain information on the validity (status) of a patent or a published patent application, on a given date, under the applicable patent legislation in one or more countries. Such information can assist in making decisions on, for example, exporting, or in the negotiation of license agreements. It can also give guidance on the value attached to a particular patent by the patentee.